Service Learning Basics

In this section we introduce the idea of service learning, discuss ways to enhance your own course with SLS content and partnerships, share best practices for service learning, and present ways to factor assessment practices related to service learning in your course.

Why Service Learning

Service Learning Defined

Service Learning is a pedagogy that provides students with structured opportunities to learn, develop, and reflect through active participation in thoughtful, organized community engagement (Jawaharal et al 2006 cited in Dukhan et al 2006).  Important features of service learning include (Jacoby 1996):

  1. Addresses human and community priorities as defined by the community (local, state, national, or global), often through experiential learning opportunities.
  2. Structured reflection explicitly designed to foster learning and development that connects the engagement experiences with course goals, including learning about the larger social issues behind the needs their engagement is addressing.
  3. Reciprocity between the community partners and the course so that both community priorities and student learning goals are addressed and all partners involved contribute to determining what is to be learned as well as engage in learning themselves.  


Six Critical Elements of Thoughtful Community Engaged Learning (Adapted from Mintz and Hesser 1996, Eyler and Giles 1999)
  1. Community Voice: Community voices identify the priority areas for engagement; student learning goals align with these priorities so that the community engagement is central to the course.
  2. Orientation and Training: Students need information about the community, the specific partners and the relevant issues. 
  3. Meaningful Action: The ways in which students engage with the community are valuable and necessary to the community and integral to the academic learning goals.
  4. Commitment: Students are held accountable for honoring their commitment to the agreed upon community engagement.
  5. Reflection: Because students usually do not automatically make the connections between course content and community engagement experiences on their own, structured reflection is critical to learning. Reflection opportunities should be continuous and place the experience into a broader context (What? So What? Now What?).
  6. Evaluation: Instructors have a dual responsibility to measure the effectiveness of the engagement in the community and the impact of the student’s learning experience.


For Further Reading: 

Dukhan, N., M.R. Schumack, and J.J. Daniels. 2008. Implementation of service-learning in engineering and its impact on students' attitudes and identity. European Journal of Engineering Education. 33(1): 21-31. 

Eyler, Janet and Dwight E. Giles. 1999. Where's the Learning in Service-Learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jacoby, Barbara and Associates. 1996. Service-Learning in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publications.

Mintz, Suzanne D. and Garry W. Hesser.  1996.  "Principles of Good Practice in Service-Learning." In Service-Learning in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publications.

Ways to Enhance Your Course with SLS Content and Partnerships

  1. Develop a new module
  2. Develop a new assignment
  3. If your course is already focused on sustainability, add some community components
  4. If your course is already focused on community, add some sustainability components
  5. Connect to real world cases
  6. Connect one community issue to others, presenting a systems analysis
  7. Bring guest speakers into your classroom
  8. Add a community-based learning experience
  9. Design a new course, building on your content expertise

Recommended Best Practices for Service Learning

  • Include action-based group projects for students
  • Connects the classroom to the community. 
    • If feasible, the social problem being addressed needs to be directly linked to the curricular content being studied. In cases where this is not possible, at a minimum, course learning should be intentionally applied to the identified social problem. 
  • Involves interaction with a community partner 
    • Examples include having the community partner address students about community needs, helping to educate the students about an existing social problem the partner is attempting to address, and inviting the students to participate in creatively identifying ways and carrying forward action plans.
  • Does not put unnecessary burden on the community partner
  • Introduces students by exposure to a diversity of stakeholders (community partners, teacher, peer group partners, etc.) with a diversity of life experiences, goals, and working styles
  • Includes integrated personal (and sometimes group) reflection for students
  • Is graded thoughtfully as part of the academic expectations of course curriculum that connects the classroom to the community

(Adapted from White & White 2013, “Best Practices and Effectiveness of Service Learning”)

Assessment and Service Learning

Content coming soon...